Family Star Montessori: A Conversation with Amy Downs

Q&A   27 August 2019
By Amy Downs, Family Star

 

It’s hard to teach passion. It’s a lot easier to find people who are passionate and train them with the skills they need to be successful.

Amy Downs
Executive Director

Q: What path led you to your current work at Family Star?

Amy: I’ve been in my current role at Family Star for one year. In the prior 20 years of my career, I was working with policymakers in health education and social policy. Throughout this work, one of the things that rang true for me was that when you look at the most important investments and practices supporting children’s health and wellbeing, the quality of the early childhood education they receive is paramount.

Due to this fact, I became increasingly concerned about issues around equity and lack of educational access, which ultimately led to me wanting to make a career shift to work more at the grassroots level. That led me to Family Star. We’re one of the few schools in the country that provides authentic Montessori curriculum and is also a Early Head Start/Head Start program—both federal programs for low-income children.

When you look at Montessori, we know it fosters a sense of independence, creativity, and self-direction—dispositions all children need and, in particular, will be very helpful for at-risk children in terms of setting them up for success. That’s why I came to Family Star.

Q: How did Family Star become this unique combination of Montessori and Head Start?

Amy: Family Star was started about 30 years ago by a number of community activists who were very concerned about the achievement gap between low-income and high-income children, as well as that between children from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and Caucasian children. They wanted to address this issue and noticed the promising possibilities Montessori could provide.

This wasn’t a random model they chose. There was actually a Montessori elementary school in the area, and they saw similar achievement gaps showing up in that particular system. Rather than see that as a problem with Montessori itself, they saw a need for the gap to be addressed much earlier in a child’s development.

This drove them to the founding of Family Star in 1988 and officially opening its doors to families in 1991. In 1995, with a clear focus on serving the needs of their immediate community, they applied for and became a pilot site for Early Head Start—”serving infants, toddlers, and pregnant women and their families who have incomes below the Federal poverty level”—while maintaining their Montessori foundation. Finally, in 1997, Family Star expanded beyond Early Head Start (for children younger than three years old) and began providing Head Start (for children three to five years old.) The purpose of these programs is to promote “the school readiness of children from birth to age five from low-income families by enhancing their cognitive, social, and emotional development.”

Q: What role do you think policy needs to play when it comes to advancing learner-centered education?

Amy: Given my focus on early childhood education, I’ll speak to that. Securing a well-trained staff is a big challenge across the sector. The topic comes up at almost every early childhood meeting I attend: “How do we make sure we have enough trained teachers who can provide high-quality education?”

Primary teachers, in particular, are in relatively short supply. Specifically, at Family Star, we want to have Montessori-trained educators. And, Head Start requires us to have primary teachers who have a minimum of an Associate’s Degree in early childhood education or a related field. To add to the limited pool of candidates, it can be very difficult finding people who are willing and able to work for the salaries that early childhood education offers.

Additionally, fulfilling the needs of regulatory environments while trying to nurture learner-centered education adds to the complexity of our work. And, it’s a challenge we believe is worth tackling.

Q: Given the various needs you have of the educators you hire, what does your hiring process look like?

Amy: We approach hiring in a unique fashion—we call it our “grow your own” model. Our number one hiring goal is to find people who are passionate about serving our student population. It’s hard to teach passion. It’s a lot easier to find people who are passionate and train them with the skills they need to be successful. Turnover is always challenging in early childhood education, so to the extent we can retain talented and passionate people, we want to do that.

We hire many of our staff from the learning community itself—approximately 25% of our teaching staff are former Head Start parents. We also have some teachers who have been here for over 20 years, and they began working at Family Star as soon as they graduated high school.

We’ll bring people on as assistant teachers, while financially supporting them to take early childhood education coursework. Eventually, they can become teachers and, ultimately, step into the role of lead teachers.  

Another area of expertise that is needed at Family Star relates to trauma. With support from the Colorado Trust and the Rose Community Foundation, we are working on becoming a trauma-informed school—where everyone, from the person who answers our main phone line to lead teachers to our facilities staff, goes through trauma-informed training. Our aim is to enable each person to develop an understanding of what being trauma-informed means to their role at Family Star, be it education practices or otherwise. This really shows up in how one interacts with students, parents, and fellow colleagues.

Q: What does the “family” in Family Star mean to you?

Amy: We’re a two-generation model. While we provide high-quality early childhood education, we also provide a lot of support to caregivers. We have Child and Family Advocates (CFA) who empower caregivers to stabilize their family life. We can do as much as we can to provide the child a nurturing and loving environment during the day, and we want them to have a stable environment when they go home. I think our CFA roles attract many parents who have directly experienced how valuable that support is.

We have many caregivers who are homeless. Our CFA’s support the search for stable housing, as well as finding caregivers work and workforce-related skills training. Overall, we want to positively impact the social determinants of health for all of the families we serve.

Keeping these determinants front and center has led to the creation of a food collaborative where caregivers can come at any time and pick up dry goods. Every Friday, we have fresh fruits and vegetables, so families can have better access to healthy foods over the weekend.

We also host family engagement activities. We have Family Night once a month where families come in and have a space to enjoy time together. And, we use a portion of the evening to engage caregivers in topics like how to incorporate Montessori at home, how they can support their child’s reading and literacy development, and others that bring Family Star’s work home. We want Family Star to be more than just a place you come and drop your child off. We want our community to know they are fully supported here.

This includes our scholarship fund that helps families in crisis. Let’s say a car accident happens, and a family is suddenly without a car. We can use the fund to provide bus passes. Or, let’s say a family was unable to fully pay last month’s rent because of a crisis. We can provide assistance as long as a clear plan is laid out for how the family will move forward and be able to make their payments in the future. There’s a real sense at Family Star of supporting all aspects of the family, and that really resonates with a lot of people.

Q: You all are providing so much already. What else are you striving to create at Family Star?

Amy: We’re very cognizant of the fact that there is a shortage of high-quality early childhood education for low-income children in the Denver area—we recently expanded one of our centers by 50%. We’re really focused on how we can help meet the needs of the community, while staying true to the fidelity of our model and providing high-quality, early childhood education. We want to be part of the solution in regards to the lack of capacity and access many Denver children face, but we also don’t want to compromise on quality by expanding our own services too quickly. With our current expansion, we are making sure that we can still provide high-quality services.

One of the things we are currently doing that I haven’t mentioned yet is providing a home-based program. We have what we call Parent Educators who meet parents and caregivers where they are—home, temporary housing, or otherwise. They meet with these caregivers who are unable to transport their child(ren) to Family Star and, once a week, provide a one-on-one Montessori lesson for the child and then leave those materials for the caregiver to conduct that lesson with their child throughout the week. The Parent Educator also brings food and supplies and takes time to check-in with the family to understand how we can support them.

Overall, we want to make sure we are holding all of these moving parts together while reaching as many children as possible.

Q: How do Family Star families handle the transition to more conventional learning environments once their child gets a bit older?

Amy: One goal at Family Star is to help families identify an elementary school that their children can go to that will continue their Montessori education. As I get my feet under me at Family Star, one of the things I’m interested in doing is to track our students learning journeys over time as they transition to other Denver Public Schools.

When we look at research and analysis around Montessori, it shows that authentic Montessori programs help close the achievement gap when students start young. But, I think it would be helpful for us to know if that impact is happening with our students. It would be hard to measure for causation, but I think we could at least see if there is a correlation.

Q: A bit related to research, what do you wish more people would ask about your work—be it friends, family, other educators, or even researchers?

Amy: Family Star has an amazing support network. However, I wish we had even more people ask what they can do to support our work at Family Star. Inside Family Star, our community is very passionate and engaged, but for this to really work, we need the entire community (beyond Family Star) to chip in. We’re constantly looking for support—financial, volunteer, and whatever someone can offer. 

I think it can be challenging in today’s society—feeling like we’re already being pulled in so many directions in our individual lives—to engage more in nonprofit communities. But, that support can come in many forms—from physically volunteering at Family Star to living our values in their daily lives. How can you be a support in addressing gaps in educational equity, whether it’s working directly with us or another organization in your community?